Legendary Heart: A Remembrance of Lou Reed

Lou Reed lived an extraordinary life, but that's mainly because he never followed any existing archetype. He was Lou Reed, and there was never anyone like him before, and there will never be anyone like him after.

Lou Reed was a man of few words. I know this because when I interviewed him in 2007, his answers were short, brief, and to the point (some, in fact, would even say curt). He was notoriously hostile towards journalists, and he was certainly not a man who took kindly to small talk. But really, could you blame him? He was Lou Reed.

Yet what got Lou excited the most -- and what a lot of people tend to forget about him through his self-perpetuating myth and his notoriously crusty personality -- was that he loved pushing boundaries, especially when other people were involved in the process. Although 2011’s oft-derided Metallica collaboration Lulu was the subject of much ridicule (and let it be noted that Lou himself probably would be prouder than anyone that it will go down as the last full-length he put out in his lifetime), he told interviewers that he really couldn’t care less about how well it was received or well it fared commercially. He (rightly) pointed out that his own audience had left a long, long time ago.

"Who cares?" he told The Telegraph in 2011 when the idea of critical reception was trotted out before him. "I never wrote for [critics] then, I don’t write for them now. I have no interest in what they have to say about anything. I’m interested in whether I like it. I write for me."

That very simple, guiding principal -- "I write for me" -- sums up Lou Reed’s career perfectly, because even from the onset, there was never a songwriter quite like him. He followed his own muse regardless of what cooler heads may have warned, and because of it, he completely rewrote the rules of rock music, full stop.

Back in the early ‘60s, Reed was hired on as the songwriter-for-hire for Pickwick Records, and although he was asked to write a steady stream of hits, his open-tuning guitar work and his fondness for the weird just made it so he couldn’t be pigeonholed, even with a stuffy pay-for-hire job. Case in point? Just give a quick listen to this acid-trip dance craze he tried to write for The Primitives, which takes its place alongside Marsha Gee’s "Peanut Duck" as one of pop music’s greatest oddball curios. Some would call such gloriously self-sabotaging pop songs an act of mainstream subversion. The truth of the matter is much harder for people to swallow: sometimes Lou Reed was just downright funny.

Of course, the Velvet Underground is a band that will always elude mere summary, as their power and influence stretches so much farther than just about any group this side of the Beatles. With Andy Warhol’s blessing and cultural stature, the group’s first album, 1967’s The Velvet Underground & Nico, gained notoriety for is breaking of social norms, S&M and drug use being casual lyrical tropes that Reed kicked around freely, all given an uncompromising musical foundation with the help of John Cale. Yet while "All Tomorrow’s Parties", "Venus in Furs", and "Heroin" became standards for a generation that was eager to break societal convention, it was those moments of unspeakable pop beauty -- "Sunday Morning", "I’ll Be Your Mirror", "There She Goes Again" -- that proved that the band was no novelty act. That perfect meshing of the salacious and the sublime proved to be the Velvet Underground’s calling card, and it was that very aesthetic that would carry them through their next three albums, each one a masterpiece.

Having left Warhol’s tight circle (and therefore Nico as well), the group’s next album, 1968’s White Light/White Heat, proved to be their most rollicking release, ranging from the gorgeous "Here She Comes Now" to the side-destroying death-groove that was "Sister Ray", a full 17 minutes of rambunctious guitar funk that turned the phrase "sucking on my ding-dong" into high art. The quieter self-titled album from 1969 (the muted tone a result of some of their equipment being stolen before recording) showcased a frighteningly powerful maturity to Reed’s songwriting (especially with songs like "Candy Says", "Pale Blue Eyes", "I’m Set Free" -- the list goes on), and in some circles is still considered their best album.

A change in labels meant a change in direction, and after being challenged to write the hits that everyone knew he was capable of, Velvet Underground’s final album, 1970’s Loaded was just what Lou promised: it was "loaded" with hits, and so many of the songs, from "Sweet Jane" to "Oh, Sweet Nuthin’", are still standards that are played to this day (part of the change in tone to sunshine-y sweet no doubt had to be of the swapout of Cale for Doug Yule, who would continue the band’s name on without Lou Reed’s help with 1973’s Squeeze, an album considered so bad that it’s not even treated as part of the official VU discography despite bearing the band’s name).

Lou Reed’s solo career was a piece of work in and of itself, as Reed played with the mainstream (1972’s David Bowie-produced Transformer being a career highlight, although some are quick to point out that a lot of the songs used had their initial drafts cut with the Velvets) to the avant-garde (1975’s distortion experiment Metal Machine Music, an album Reed proudly refers to as the most-returned album of all time). Elsewhere he went from the moving (1992’s powerful Magic and Loss) to the majestic (1973’s Berlin) to even the deliberately commercial (1984’s cloying New Sensations). Sometimes, Lou would pop off a radio hit as if to challenge himself, wondering "Do I still got it?" and proving that, as minor as the hits were, yes, he still did.

Lou prided himself on being a performing artist, and there are no less than eight live albums that decorate his discography. Sometimes he’d house great songs in merely-OK albums (like 1978’s cello-driven epic "Street Hassle", buried in the album of the same name), and sometimes he’d just blindside everyone with an end-to-end burner (like 1982’s breathtaking The Blue Mask). In 2008, he married fellow avant-garde artist Laurie Anderson, and in 2010, as if providing a summary for anyone who wondered what it was they were about, they curated a concert for dogs in Australia. Again, the man had a wicked sense of humor.

Yet even with his cagey demeanor and occasional forays into New Wave soundscapes, the one thing that people forget about Lou Reed was his desire to push boundaries, collaborate, and help out those who helped him. Reed helped with songs for both Nico and Velvet Underground drummer Maureen Tucker, and even contributed vocals to a song by professed fans Metric. When not denying Susan Boyle the opportunity to cover "Perfect Day" live (although he did give her permission to sing it on her album), he did collaborations with the Killers, with Metallica, and on his last commercially released appearance prior to his passing, Reed contributed a cover of "Solsbury Hill" to last month’s Peter Gabriel collaboration album And I’ll Scratch Yours (although Reed’s version was recorded all the way back in 2010).

The man took great joy in creating art and defying convention (doubly so for someone who achieved "elder statesman" status so young), and when the German group Zeitkratzer wanted to use their classical instruments to cover the atonal work of Metal Machine Music, he was all game, even lending his own guitar skills to the third movement, creating wave upon wave of feedback. During my interview with him, he never got more excited than when he was talking about the work of others and especially what Zeitkratzer were doing -- he loved how well they were able to reinterpret such a controversial album and do it so damn well. He beamed with pride as he dove into every detail about their transcription work, and was equally amazed that such a strange little album from 1975 had inspired countless artists and birthed entire subgenres unto itself.

One of the questions I asked him at the time was "Does Metal Machine Music stand as a more musical triumpnh or a philosophical one -- or both?" His answer was short but sweet: "Well, I mean, I really like it. I really love it. Not just the idea -- the actual thing. I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t love it."

When you look back at his torrential, breathtaking, controversial, and downright groundbreaking legacy, that one facet definitely holds true: Lou didn’t do anything unless he didn’t love it -- and boy are we lucky that he loved his muse as passionately as he did.

Rest in peace, Lou.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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